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Don’t mention that Mussolini saved Jews: it is Politically Inconvenient to do so

by Frank Johnson Sunday, Jun. 22, 2003 at 1:49 AM

Mussolini saved more Jews than Schindler! For once, the word ‘controversial’, so often used to describe any old bit of routine leftism, is justified. That Mussolini saved Jews has long been known, especially to non-left-wing Italians, though that includes few Italian intellectuals. But not known widely; it is not something which Anglo-Saxons emphasise about Mussolini. Was not Mussolini Hitler’s ally? How could he have saved Jews?


Don’t mention that Mussolini saved Jews: it is Politically Inconvenient to do so

Frank Johnson

Weidenfeld and Nicolson is about to publish a big biography of Mussolini by my friend Nicholas Farrell, which contains the following passage: ‘Just as none of the victorious powers went to war with Germany to save the Jews neither did Mussolini go to war with them to exterminate the Jews. Indeed, once the Holocaust was under way he and his fascists refused to deport Jews to the Nazi death camps thus saving thousands of Jewish lives — far more than Oskar Schindler.’

Mussolini saved more Jews than Schindler! For once, the word ‘controversial’, so often used to describe any old bit of routine leftism, is justified. That Mussolini saved Jews has long been known, especially to non-left-wing Italians, though that includes few Italian intellectuals. But not known widely; it is not something which Anglo-Saxons emphasise about Mussolini. Was not Mussolini Hitler’s ally? How could he have saved Jews?

A few years ago the Guardian journalist Paul Webster discussed it in his book on Pétain and the Jews — Pétain’s Crime — to compare Pétain’s attitude to the Jews unfavourably with Mussolini’s. But the passage in Mr Webster’s book aroused no wider interest in Britain, his subject being Pétain rather than Mussolini.

A few academics writing in English have mentioned the matter, but in a rather cool way. By using the startling comparison with Schindler, Mr Farrell is the first writer in English to give it the weight that it deserves — to dramatise it. This could be because he is a journalist rather than an academic. Some historians, like Tacitus, Gibbon, Macaulay and A.J.P. Taylor have had an eye for a story; but not the average academic historian. Unless, in many cases, it is an old left-wing story that has been told over and over again. Potential readers should be wary of academics reviewing Mr Farrell’s book.   

That a right-wing dictator could save Jews is the sort of information that has not been allowed to enter the Anglo-Saxon consciousness because it is politically inconvenient. Politically Convenient historiography does not take account of shades of white and black. No grey is allowed. Once it is agreed that someone was a right-winger, anything good that he does is either not emphasised or it is suppressed. It is Politically Inconvenient that Mussolini saved Jews.

During the war, many Jews from various parts of Europe saved themselves by reaching Franco’s Spain. Some made their way to Argentina, including Perón’s Argentina. The recently deceased Lord Bauer — Peter Bauer, the dissident free-marketeer among LSE economists, himself born a Hungarian Jew — delighted in telling me of a Hungarian Jew who made his way through Franco’s Spain to Cuba (another right-wing dictatorship), later to help invent the contraceptive pill.

We often hear about Nazis to whom Argentina gave refuge, but not Jews. It is Politically Inconvenient. None of this is to deny that Mussolini, Franco and Perón were also bad. But ancient historians had no difficulty in grasping that bad rulers could also do good. To the ancients, many rulers, perhaps most, were both. The ancients wisely saw this as the ruler’s perennial condition; tragedy even. By comparison, modern historians have declined into infantilism.

We might, however, be witnessing the faint stirrings of a return to the ancients. Mr Farrell’s book is one such stirring. In France recently I bought a copy of a new book on the strength of its title — Historiquement Correct (Perrin), by Jean Sévillia, an editor of Figaro magazine. It is a bracing look at French education’s and French politicians’ leftish way with history.

The book is a compendium of Politically Inconvenient information. M. Sévillia has the Spanish Inquisition as condemning relatively few to burning at the auto-da-fé. He has many Jews as being convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt, and speculates that had he not been the victim, Dreyfus himself — being unpleasant and an extreme nationalist — would have been anti-Dreyfusard, which may not be the point but is amusing. He has the Algerian nationalists committing many more, and many worse, atrocities than the French colonial army during the Algerian war. He has de Gaulle causing far more deaths by giving Algeria independence precipitately; the triumphant nationalists massacring many relatively humble Algerians who had worked for the colonial government He has the Spanish conquerors ending far more torture and murder among the natives of Mexico and Peru than they inflicted on them. 

Most mischievously, M. Sévillia has Pétain presiding over the saving of Jews, too. Like Mussolini, he passed anti-Semitic laws; but in the German shadow. Many French Jews were deported to their deaths. But many were saved. Pétain and his regime have long been held responsible for those who perished. M. Sévillia now raises a taboo subject: should not Pétain and his regime be held responsible for those who were saved? ‘Paradoxically,’ he writes, ‘neither Pétain, who made no speech accusing the Jews, nor Laval, was especially anti-Semitic.’

He adds that ‘Vichyite anti-Semitism contains all kinds of exceptions.’ During the notorious French police round-up of Parisian Jews in 1942, he says, certain policemen allowed so many Jews to escape that fewer than a half of those in Paris were seized. In Nancy, the police issued so many false papers that only 32 of the city’s 350 Jews were arrested.

M. Sévillia has a quotation from the French historian of the Occupation, Henri Amouroux — whom the French Left disapproves of — which could serve as the motto for the new school of Politically Inconvenient history for which some of us hope: ‘Il existe une relativité dans le mal.’

On the subject of France, after writing my last piece here, I was mortified to discover, too late, that I had spelt de Gaulle’s adversary Giraud as ‘Guiraud’, despite an almost lifelong interest in the subject. I can only plead as shoplifters do on these occasions: I don’t know what came over me.

This confession is voluntary. I awaited the mocking readers’ letters. None came. This may say something about this magazine’s readers or about how many of them read me. Eventually, a card arrived from a French friend in Paris; a gentle correction. 

But it serves Giraud right. When Roosevelt forced de Gaulle to have a meeting with his rival, Giraud made a point of addressing the general as Gaulle. But it is also said that de Gaulle greeted Edward Heath — during the first abortive Common Market negotiations — with: ‘Bonjour, M. Maudling.’

© 2003 The

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